Identification Etiquette on iNaturalist - Wiki

#1

Background

This wiki topic is initially populated with a bunch of items gleaned over the years from various iNaturalist discussion threads. I made it a Tutorial and attempted to word it with an eye toward newer users as the main audience. Many of the issues addressed here seem to pop up repeatedly, and I think everyone could benefit from having them pulled together in one place.

Please keep in mind that the intended emphasis is on general etiquette and best practices, not on the technical details of specific identification issues. You will notice that I intentionally stayed away from the weeds of DQAs (Data Quality Assessments), and when they should and shouldn’t be used.

That said, I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything that a newer user should know on this topic, and maybe I’m off base on some of the initial suggestions too. This is a wiki so that we can discuss, add, and refine as much as possible, toward the goal of eventually adding a topic like this to the Help pages:

Identification Etiquette on iNaturalist

1. Be Bold. If you think you know what something is, say so! That’s what the iNaturalist community process is all about (among many other things). Note that the tab for IDs is called “Suggest an Identification.”

  • Not sure, but have some ideas? Leaving those ideas in a comment instead can still be helpful. Or you can just come back to the observation later, or mark it as “reviewed” and move on.

2. Disagree agreeably, and with evidence. If your Suggested ID disagrees with an existing ID, it helps to briefly note your evidence or other reasons in a comment, so the observer knows where you are coming from with your disagreement.

  • Suggestion: in any response comment, @ tag the user name(s) you are responding to, in case they have turned off automatic notifications on that observation.

3. You don’t have to know which species.

  • Adding finer IDs - if you can help get the ID to a finer level, please do. For example, if the current ID is “Plant,” and you are sure it is a conifer tree, but don’t know which one, just ID it as a conifer. iNaturalist lets you ID at any level.
  • Adding coarser IDs - in general, if finer-level IDs already exist on an observation, only add a coarser ID if you intend to disagree, and/or think that there is not enough evidence to support the finer ID. Again, you should say why in the comments.
    • Be sure to read any description and previous comments first. Sometimes an observer will have recorded notes about features that are not visible in the photographs, which may be important to the identification.

4. Be accepting of suggestions from others. Assume good intentions - there are many different experience levels, personalities, nationalities, and languages on iNaturalist. If you disagree with a suggestion, do so in a comment: politely and with evidence. Much good conversation and learning often happens during the community ID process, for users of all experience levels. Keeping it civil helps.

5. Avoid automatically agreeing with someone else’s ID, just because they said so. Consider doing a little research first. One easy check is to right click on the name or thumbnail of the suggested ID, and visit the page for that taxon. Check especially the Map tab, the Similar Species tab, and the existing photos. Do these seem consistent with the observation? You could also look at the taxon pages for some of the other suggestions that come up automatically in a blank ID box. Or you can just wait for more community members to weigh in first.

6. Be careful using the automatic suggestions. In a few (and growing) areas of the world, the suggestions are amazingly good, and getting better every day as more observations are added. But in many parts of the world, there are too little data yet for reliable suggestions. But iNaturalist will always give you a suggestion, even if it’s from the wrong continent, so use caution.

7. View all photos in the observation before adding an ID. They can help solidify your ID. Or, you might encounter one of these situations:

  • Single photo shows multiple species. If it’s not clear which species is the focus, did the observer leave a provisional ID, or say in a comment or description which organism they are focusing on? If not, you can either leave a comment and ask which species they want identified, or leave an ID for one of them, and describe in a comment which one you are identifying. You can change or withdraw your ID later if they respond that they meant a different species.
  • Different photos show different species. This sometimes happens with new users who are still learning how iNaturalist works. For this situation it is best to leave a comment suggesting that they make separate observations for each species. Some boilerplate comment language can be found here, but feel free to make it more friendly and personal.

8. Getting more ID help

  • Give it your best shot first. Even if you can get it into a broad “bin” like Birds, Plants, Butterflies, etc., that will make it much easier for knowledgeable identifiers to find. Even if you are not sure, this is better than leaving it as “Unknown.” If you put it in the wrong “bin”, someone should at least be able to put it in the right one for you.
  • If you are still not getting any ID help, recruit someone. You can add a request in a comment and @ tag another iNat user you think might be able to help. Unless you are already familiar with the user’s preferences, do this sparingly, so it doesn’t seem like you are “spamming” them with too many requests. At bottom right of an observation page you will see who the top 10 identifiers are for the current ID “bin” of your observation. Those are possibilities to try. (But see discussion here for some further caveats.) Just remember that the top identifiers, by definition, do a huge amount of volunteer ID work on iNaturalist, and may or may not have time to respond. If you don’t hear from them after a week or two, try someone else on the list.

9. Some observations are not identifiable. Understand that different kinds of life have different characteristics that separate species, and these are not always apparent in photographs (or other evidence), especially blurry ones.

  • A good identifier will leave a comment about the missing information they need before they can make an ID. Don’t take this as personal criticism, they are just documenting their assessment, and helping you learn what to focus on next time you see that organism, or ones like it. If you have more photographs of the same organism at the same place and time, definitely add those to the same observation (don’t make new ones), and @ tag the identifier to let them know. The additional views may help. Or if you have separate observations from different dates, include the links to those in the description or in a comment.
  • In general, the more different views of the organism you can get – whole organism and close-ups of different parts, from side, top, bottom, rear, front, etc. – the more likely it can be identified. Good sharp focus also helps – it’s worth taking the time to learn the details of how your autofocus or manual focus works.
  • For some groups, it may simply be impossible to identify finer than, say, Genus or Family from photographic evidence. Don’t be discouraged – every observation still helps! At least researchers will know where and what time of year to go find what you saw, and who to contact if they have questions.
  • If an observation can’t be identified to species, and you (or the community) thinks the current ID is “as good as it can be,” there is a question at the bottom of the observation page, “Based on the evidence, can the Community ID still be confirmed or improved?” This should be set to “No” in this circumstance.

10. What if I can’t find the right name for my ID? Not all published names have yet been added to iNaturalist. Or you may only be able to find a synonym of the name you want to use.

  • If you found a synonym and can accept it for your ID, then please use it. Otherwise…
  • Look up the next higher taxon (genus, family, etc.), or the synonym, at https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa, and go to the taxon page for that name.
  • Under Curation, select “Flag for Curation” and leave a short reason like “GenusA speciesB missing” or “synonym of GenusX speciesY” and click “Flag It!”
  • If you have more detail to add (strongly encouraged), you will see a link to the flag you just created near the top of your screen. Open it back up and leave a comment in the comment box with the details.
    • NOTE: with some exceptions, out of practical necessity iNaturalist only follows a single “Taxonomic Framework” for each major group of organisms worldwide. If you are wanting to use a different synonym, and it conflicts with the adopted framework, and you believe the name currently used in the framework should be rejected, you will need to provide whatever documentation and justification you can to support “deviating” from the framework. Deviations are sometimes accepted, but only with sufficient justification.

11. Identify in good faith. That is always the expectation here. Any user who shows a pattern of random, intentionally wrong, or “joke” IDs is at risk of having their account suspended.

12. Honour the observer’s intention. If the observation shows a photo of an Elephant with its toe touching a daisy, and the observer indicates they are interested in the daisy - then don’t add identifications for the Elephant. Or if the observer doesn’t add an initial identification, but chimes in later when they see the wrong thing being identified, follow their lead and identify whatever they are interested in.

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General consensus on etiquette regarding recruiting IDs from specific identifiers?
#2

Good idea to have this thread. The only thing I can think of right now is that the pop-up box that gives a choice to say that a coarser ID is not a disagreement would need to be changed to be consistent with #3 which makes all coarser IDs into disagreements.

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#3

Thanks @paloma. We’ll see what others think too, but I’m not sure there is an inconsistency in #3 with the popup box. Both popup choices are disagreements in a sense, just about different things. For everyone’s reference, the pop-up when adding a coarser ID (that is still a parent of a finer ID) says,

Is the evidence provided enough to confirm this is GenusX speciesY?

  • I don’t know but I am sure this is GenusX
  • No, but it is a member of GenusX

The second choice is saying that the evidence definitely doesn’t support speciesY – clear disagreement.

The first choice says that the sufficiency of the evidence is uncertain. While the finer ID was saying that the sufficiency of the evidence is certain. Finer distinction, but still a disagreement to me.

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#4

I think your wording is much better than the current wording saying that “I” don’t know whether the evidence provided is enough to confirm the species. Your wording is a definite statement of the sufficiency of the evidence being uncertain, rather than a statement of my personal knowledge about it. Now I see where some misunderstandings have arisen . . . Thanks!

I think it would be best to have this [or whatever the final language of #3 becomes] displayed somehow whenever a coarser ID is added, as a reminder. (For what it’s worth, I see people presumably using apps constantly making coarser IDs. I have assumed this is because they are responding to IDs in reverse order.)

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#5

Yeah, the current wording of the first choice in that popup box comes across in a way that inspires a thought process like “even though I don’t personally know enough to confirm the species others have identified, I can still contribute by confirming the genus.” That there are a green button and a yellow button also sort of implies it’s a “soft agree”/disagree dichotomy being presented. I have definitely interacted with newet users who misunderstood it in exactly that way.

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#6

in terms of the explicit disagreements, i still think inat has a grey area under dispute in terms of how to manage that. For instance, you can’t tell if a sugar maple is red or sugar maple and you are skeptical the observer can, but you aren’t sure. ‘knocking back to genus’ is something i think one should only do if they either believe the ID is wrong or are very certain the original observer couldn’t tell the difference (a high bar!) I personally put the bar a lot lower when a user hasn’t used the site in several months. If it’s an actuve user, i think it would be best to add a comment like ‘it’s hard to tell sugar from red maple just by bark, did you see the leaves?’ instead of disagreeing right off the bat.

Also on that note… whether or not a user is active is really important. For my part, i don’t post ID help along with disagreements if the user has definitely been gone a long time (~6 months or so) but for an active user i pretty much always do unless i already know them and have talked to them before. I think it’s important to help cushion the impact of being ‘corrected’ since some people don’t respond to that (it is hard to!)

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#7

Totally agree. I’m into bryophytes now and I don’t have the tools to take photos of microscopic features to include in my observations. So I submit observations which I’m fully aware can’t be confirmed because key features aren’t visible. Certain bryophyte experts who shall not be named keep knocking my observations back to genus because they “cannot be confirmed”!

I try to only knock observations back to coarser taxa if I’m defensibly certain that it isn’t the species the user originally suggested. Not being able to confirm an ID suggestion because certain features aren’t visible is not a valid reason! /end rant/

On another note, I find myself struggling sometimes to use language that’s instructive without sounding rude. Intonations don’t come through on the internet, and factual statements can sometimes come across as rude or arrogant. It’s hard to find a balance between instructive language and overuse of “lol” and “:)”…lol

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#8

@wdvanhem To minimize this problem, on insects for example, which must be dissected or studied under microscope, I include verbiage in the description or comments that specimen has been dissected, or specimen has been analyzed under microscope.

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#9

people need to calm down on that business. I feel like we need a more defined policy on that. I originally only advocated for explicit disagreement if you are confident it is wrong but that seems a lost cause at this point and there are grey areas of course… like if it seems wrong and is also out of range…

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#10

I think this tutorial is very well done, great work!

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#11

Way out of range can be a good reason for disagreement (unless it’s something that conceivably could be introduced).

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#12

Yes, that’s a very good point and I should probably do that more often. I still think the knee-jerk “I can’t confirm this so it must be wrong” approach is a little unnecessary, though.

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#13

yeah i agree

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#14

@jdmore I think this is a great post! I often struggled when I started using iNat with the general idea that it was okay to be bold and take an educated guess at an ID… and to be wrong. I have learned a great deal from iNat, not only about identifications, but about how to be nonjudgmental and cooperative in seeking understanding, which has been incredibly rewarding!

I do have one question about ID etiquette that I don’t see addressed in your post: when is it appropriate to withdraw an ID? I have developed a habit over time to scan my previous IDs to see who has agreed/disagreed with me on taxa I was not particularly confident about. When I see that someone who is a curator or has in-depth knowledge has disagreed with my ID, I withdraw it in the hopes that this will accelerate arriving at an accurate ID. Is this strategy/practice a good thing, or should I not withdraw IDs in this situation?

Thanks for your guidance! My goal is to use iNat in away that helps move toward accuracy.

ocean_beach_goth

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#15

i withdraw an ID if someone else offers an ID that seems like it might be right. It keeps a record of your ID so it’s still there for learning and reference purposese. If it’s a coarser ID and I get a finer ID within the same taxonomic unit, i leave my ID alone if I am not sure of the finer ID (like if it is a taxa i know very little about). If someone offers an ID and i am reasonably confident that they are correct and know the taxa pretty well (plants), i will agree with it.

In terms of IDs, if it’s your own observation, i think making an educated guess is fine, maybe along with a ‘not certain’ type comment. if you are helping others with ID, if you aren’t certain, i think it’s better to use a comment to suggest a possible ID such as ‘I think it’s Solidago canadensis but i am not sure’ or ‘Perhaps solidago gigantea’.

Does that make sense?

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#16

@charlie yes, this makes sense and is in line with what I generally do already. Thanks for the quick response!

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#17

The other aspect that contributes to the thinking that one choice expresses disagreement and the other does not is that one choice ends up stating on the observation that there is disagreement and the other choice does not.

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#18

I think I can bring this up without talking about the DQAs, but I would like to see a statement of etiquette for this situation: Observer posts multiple photos, each of a different organism. Someone adds an ID for the first photo. One or more comments are added asking the observer to separate into multiple observations. Then with all the photos still there, another person (not a newbie) comes along and confirms the ID, leading to Research Grade. I think a statement of etiquette about continuing to add IDs in this situation might be helpful.

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#19

Point well taken. Either the Wiki or the ID dialog (or both) probably need to be clarified and better aligned on this.

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#20

Great thought, we should definitely cover that in the Wiki. Let’s see where the discussion goes on that for a while, and then come up with some wording to add. Suggestions all?

And welcome to the forums @ocean_beach_goth! Glad you have joined us.

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